Funding Your Program: Advice from a Tribal Justice Practitioner

Produced by the Center for Court Innovation

Pete Sabori discusses his experience working for a grant-funded tribal justice program and offers advice on forming partnerships and using existing resources. Pete Sabori is the former Community Court Coordinator for the Colorado River Indian Tribes. Included here is the podcast transcript.

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Precious Benally (PB): Hello. I'm Precious Benally, Senior Associate with the Tribal Justice Exchange (background music fade out) at the Center for Court Innovation. In this podcast, I am speaking with Pete Sabori about his experience as a grant manager and grant writer for the Colorado River Indian Tribes. He will discuss the challenges he has encountered while offering advice for funding tribal justice programs. Pete is the former Community Court Coordinator for the Colorado River Indian Tribes and is currently studying law at the University of Arizona.

Hello Pete. Thank you for speaking with me today. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Pete Sabori (PS): My name is Pete Sabori. I am the Community Court Coordinator for the Colorado River Indian Tribes. I am of Hopi descendancy on my mom’s side and on my father’s side from the Hela River Indian reservation. I came to CRIT about almost five years ago. I started off as a domestic violence advocate under their DV program, and I was only there a little bit and I actually was given management over the Indian alcohol substance abuse program grant and currently, I moved over to the court and I am now in charge of implementing some of their problem-solving models and doing supplemental specialty projects like grant writing and finding additional resources for the court.

PB: Before your current post, did you have any grant writing experience?

PS: Not necessarily any formal training with it. I had some individuals that I knew were grant writers. One of my family members was, so I was always interested in that process and learned by proxy. But I didn’t actually receive any formal grant writing training until I starting at CRIT. After leaving the domestic violence advocacy program, I basically inherited a grant that was a 3 -year grant in its 3rd year. So they had asked for a couple of subsequent extensions. And it was a grant that was written without real consideration for the practical or dynamical situation of the tribe. It was written to fulfill this trend, whatever was happening with the justice system at the time on a federal level. My job was to inherit this grant and finish it out.

PB: Taking over a grant you did not write is not an uncommon experience especially in positions with high employee turnover. How did you approach this new and unfamiliar territory?

PS: I had to really look past all the deficiencies and do my best with what I had of the better part of 18 months. I think we were somewhat successful but being that rushed on a grant that was somewhat poorly designed really kind of gave me a firsthand perspective as to how would I have written this differently, how would I have done this differently, how would I have set up a timeline. Just that practical perspective gave me the insight to subsequent grants that I would help write.

PB: ‘Partnerships’ is a major buzzword these days and the first challenge is figuring out who to partner with.  How did you determine who would make a good partner?

PS: When you get to conversing with these people, you start to realize that there are a lot of these circles, especially with non-profits and/or service industries. A lot of these circles overlap. They may not seem like it, but they do, ya know? Highway safety grants might not seem like they have anything to do with tribal justice, but it all comes down to safety and prevention. If you look at it from that perspective, and where you can really expand on those areas, there might even be just a sliver of overlap, then you can start to collaborate on that. Expanding on those relationships and hearing there were funding opportunities really was a start of me becoming somewhat cognizant of what these opportunities were. And then the other thing was just making contacts. Going to conferences with other likeminded individuals who were involved in a similar field, they know areas that they’ve applied for, and are discouraged by certain grants they've applied for and trying to figure out what they did wrong. You talk to them and figure out ‘you know, well what is your program design look like, how can I make mine more like or less like depending on what is funded?’

PB: It’s great to hear that people are willing to share information about grant opportunities, but do you encounter any resistance to forming partnerships because of the notion that everyone is competing for the same funding sources?

PS: To an extent, yes, everyone is in competition with one another. And that is the adversarial construction we have to work within. But when it’s not go time, and it’s not grant season, people are a lot more willing to share those ideas because at the end of the day the objective is the wellness of the people. The pursuit of money is just the unfortunate byproduct.

PB: What you’re saying is that as a grant writer and manager, your success is hinged on opening the lines of communication with people in your similar position. It’s difficult to go at this work alone.

PS: Exactly. In the grant atmosphere we're in now there is a huge emphasis on collaboration.

PB: In addition to forming partnerships with other tribal programs and services, who else do you see as a necessary part of the process?

PS: You need to have stakeholders involved. And if those stakeholders don’t see a return on their investment, which is their time, then it’s very difficult to try to persuade them to be part of that conversation. It makes a big difference when you talk to people who do grant writing for a living versus people who are in the field that partake in that process. There is a very sterile, mile-high perspective on certain things when you have a person who does it for a living versus when you’re having your attorneys, your victim advocates helping to contribute in that process, and you really can get a perspective as to not just what they need in terms of funding and equipment and things of that nature, but really what they need from the other departments. So, you start to have that conversation, you really start to address those interdepartmental relationships and deficiencies, you end up making a better product and better project that, ultimately has the underlining foundation for being sustainable.

PB: Sustainability is one of the main goals in any grant-funded project, and you have to be forward-thinking enough to benefit the project, but that proves difficult when there are many limitations on what grant funds can be used for. So, when you’re sitting down to write a grant application, how forward looking should you be? What is the planning that goes into ensuring your program is sustainable, or at least giving your project a fighting chance?

PS: That's a big question. This notion of sustainability, what does that mean? They want to make sure you have some of these elements in effect and to be continued onward and it’s implied that maybe the tribe will adopt them and fund them and embrace them and continue on. It’s very problematic conception considering a lot of the things that are funded are for new things. You really can’t write grants to replace doorknobs or replace bathroom toilets. Things that maybe you need that you don’t have the miscellaneous expenses and/or budgeted line items for. You have to kind of read that into something that is being talked about, that is being promoted, and something that’s going to be culturally relevant to your tribe and useful. You also don’t want to apply for something that has nothing to do with your people.

PB: Can you give us an example of how you put this into practice?

PS: A couple of grants I wrote that I felt best about were grants that had things in place for them a year in advance and I’ll give you an example. We had the opportunity, and I can’t encourage this enough, to take advantage of the technical assistance opportunities provided by a grant that we had previously. And we took advantage in terms of having training opportunities brought down, taking part in the conferences that were hosted at regional sites. But also, there are individual agencies that offer that technical assistance for assessments. We had an assessment that done in 2010. It kind of fell on the wayside and nothing really came of it. So we had another one done in 2013 by the Center for Court Innovation. When it was done, it highlighted deficiencies we already knew were there, but it quantified and qualified that data in a way that was easy to cite. So, a huge chunk of the success we had with 2014 grants were because we had this tangible roadmap as to what our deficiencies were. Deficiencies across the board—programmatic, physical plants, staffing—all those things. What our strengths were, and where we could look and apply energy, and effort, and resource, to improve justice and the perception of fairness to our defendants and our clients.

PB: That is some great advice. Having a needs assessment done will show you where your project is lacking, but in the end it produces a tangible work product that can help you apply for funding in the future. Is there such a thing as too much grant funding?

PS: I guess it goes back to the sustainability thing because again it depends what you’re writing for. Are you writing for things that are an urgent need at the time, like equipment you can’t buy with tribal funds or with your BIA's contract funds? Or are you writing because that is the only thing that sustains your program, because maybe you’re a PL280 state and you have no other options except state grants. I think you can have too many grants in the sense that that is completely what you are depending on. And in some instances in Indian Country and outside of Indian Country, we have 501(c)(3)s and non-profits that are completely reliant on grants and there’s that chance that 2 out of 5 grants aren’t funded, then they’ll shut down. So I think it’s one of those things that you need to be cognizant of as to what percentage of your operating expenses are being covered by that, what percentage is being funded internally and also, being open minded, and this is a very touchy subject in Indian Country, open minded to what are the alternatives in terms of that revenue, not revenue generated, but funding generating. Because it’s not in terms of fines and things of that nature. How do we allocate those fines? Well, first off, in some of these reservations that are extremely impoverished, is it even fair to assess fines? Is that really contributing to the wellness of that individual who offended? And if so, then how do we assess those fines, how do we collect those fines, and how do we use that fine money in a way that is consistent with our objectives as a criminal justice agency?

So I guess to answer your question, I think there are some instances where you can have too much grant funding, and there are some instances where you can be completely without that. One of the things that we like to gripe about, but it kind of keeps us on our toes, is grants have stipulations, there are certain reporting requirements, there are certain expectations in terms of our inter-tribal contact that is made through these conferences and things like that that they produce some good things.

PB: Other than grants, what other funding sources should project planners take into consideration? Can you give us a picture of what your program’s funding streams look like?

PS: For us, we are funded by the tribe, so funded internally. However, we are in a unique situation in that we are on a town that is a convergent point of 3 different counties, right on the Colorado River. Part of our reservation extends into California, PL 280 state, and the majority of our reservation is in Arizona where we receive BIA funding for 638 contract. So, BIA on criminal jurisdiction in Arizona funds us but they don’t really provide the base need for the court and that’s problematic for many different reasons. So it falls on the tribe to fulfill that funding. We're in a unique position in that even though we have those jurisdictional issues, we are also on a river and we are a tourist area. So we get a lot of Californians that come speeding through and you can generate a little bit of funds through speeding tickets and those kind of fines. But you really have to be creative in how you’re funding your court, because there are those, I guess those traditional options like I just mentioned, but then there are those other ones where you really are leveraging partnerships, and maybe its not funding per se but maybe you’re collaborating with an agency that can provide you X amount of dollars in professional development and training. That might not have a cash value on a face level but if you have partners that are willing to train some of your staff, there is a value to that and that is funding your court maybe just not in the normal way that you would expect.

PB: I admire the way you think outside the box, especially in finding value in the partnerships and collaborations you create. It’s all about finding ways to enhance your program despite having limited funding. Pete, you’ve given us a lot to think about. Thank you so very much for your time and valuable insight.

Precious Benally (PB): For more programmatic advice, you can visit the Tribal Access to Justice Innovation website at (background music starts playing) I’m Precious Benally, Senior Associate at the Center for Court Innovation, thank you for listening.